It may come as a shock to those familiar to this site, but I have my limits. There are some movies so amateurishly bad even I can’t sit through them. I have a natural aversion to shot on video (SOV) stuff, because video is such an ugly, flat, and lifeless format (even untreated HD video). DIY horror can also be hard to take. Often, it’s just a bunch of bored gorehounds whose idea of a movie is stitching together a bunch of repetitious, blood drenched murders over a skeletal plot. You can only see fake intestines pulled out so many times before it loses its impact. On the other hand, I’m a sucker for an ambitious, creative story, no matter how cheaply done or successfully accomplished. A shining example is the late ‘80’s vampire splatterpunk epic, DARKNESS.
After witnessing a violent slaughter at a convenience store (which extends into his family’s trailer park), Tobe (Gary Miller) hits the road to track down Liven (Randall Aviks), the bloodsucker responsible for the carnage. Along the way, he must wipe out all the goth metal vampire dens Liven leaves in his wake. Things may be a little more than this shotgun toting teen can handle when he catches up with lord vamp. Liven has created a small army of the undead, and Tobe must team up with a batch of aimless stoners in order to survive the night. For in this small, unnamed Kansas town, Death walks the streets in acid-washed jeans.
I first heard about Leif Jonker’s DARKNESS in the mid ‘90s in the pages of Film Threat magazine. It wasn’t a review, just a blurb in the back with a single, phenomenally gross picture. The movie had the legendary cult status that came from inaccessibility. A “I knew a guy whose brother’s friend had seen this tape…” kind of thing. Various crappy looking VHS cuts floated around the horror underground since 1993, but it was finally made widely available (and viewable) when the restored DVD special edition was released in 2006. This is when I finally saw it. It lived up to the hype.
For those who watched Kevin Smith’s first film, CLERKS, and thought everyone looked too Hollywood, this movie is for you. It is dead on in its portrayal of small town suburban teens in the late ‘80s (it was shot in ’88 and 89). If I didn’t know it was shot in the Midwest, I would have been sure some of those kids went to high school with me. I owned the exact same Hard Rock Café tee shirt that one of the main characters wears. If you were a teen in those years, so did you. One of the kids actually looks (and acts) like a prototype of Jay of Jay and Silent Bob fame. One of the advantages of this totally average looking cast is that there is no guessing who is going to be a survivor. The playing field is wide open. It also avoids the standard horror movie caste system (the Jock, the Nerd, the Party Girl, the Nice Girl, etc.), making it really feel like anyone could go at any moment.
A lot of the undead hoard is taken from Kansas’ apparently abundant pool of goth metal Fangoria readers. They saved a lot of money on make-up, since most of those kids were trying to look like vampires to begin with. I counted at least three different people in Iron Maiden tee shirts. Some of these guys went all out, looking absolutely thrilled to be covered in fake blood. There is also a wide selection of distinctly late ‘80s suburban punk/industrial hairdo to be seen. It is interesting on an anthropological level.
Aside from few adult exceptions, this is solely a teenaged opera. It’s almost like CHILDREN OF THE CORN, except that they try to pass off kids in inappropriate professions. The girl playing the cop in the opening looks like she is just out of middle school. The story also has that kind of romantic, “us against the world” feel that only a teenager would write. When Tobe’s family is killed, he hits the road, alone, looking to take down the vampire responsible. I don’t think it ever occurs to him to tell the cops, or perhaps just stay the fuck away from the vampire who slaughtered dozens of people in front of his eyes. In the end, when [SPOILER] Liven gets away, the traumatized survivors who just barely escaped death load into a gun filled Civic hatchback and head after him. There is zero consideration given to school, jobs, other family, money, or perhaps going to the hospital. I think they changed clothes, at least. I know the adults aren’t going to believe their crazy vampire story, but they should at least leave a note. The entire town was wiped out. That’s going to raise questions.
Also, no one seems that broken up over the death of their parents. They get more emotional over losing someone they just met an hour ago. Kids today, or 30 years ago, such ingrates.
The movie plays fast and loose with the vampire rulebook. Vampires can be killed by sunlight, holy water (carried in a two liter Coke bottle), or normal bullets (or machetes) to the heart. Also by having their heads explode. People who are bitten will turn into vampires in anywhere from several minutes to 30 seconds after the bite. These vampires have no interest in subtlety or deception. They are practically zombies, running straight towards any warm body. Most of them don’t have fangs, so they compensate by using guns, knives, and power tools. They also don’t have much regard for self-preservation. None of them seems to realize they should avoid sunlight until they are all melting in a field. This is why there needs to be vampire orientation classes. Liven is the only one smart enough to burrow into the ground to avoid being cooked.
Another great thing about this movie is that all the time of day text counts down to sunset (11 Minutes Until Sunset, 28 Minutes Until Sunrise, Three Days Later and 1 Hour Until Sunset, etc.).
Like everything in DARKNESS, the gore effects are amateurish. They make up for it in sheer volume. It doesn’t hit the dizzying heights of DEAD ALIVE, but it comes close. Every penny of the movie’s $5,000 budget must have gone to fake blood, squibs, and latex. The climactic vampire melt down must have used a pumper truck worth of blood.
Calling these practical effects is a bit of an understatement. It’s not to say they aren’t impressive, though. The director had an ingenious method for achieving the exploding head gags (it held the record for the most exploding heads in a movie at the time). They built a model head, filled it with blood, and shot it with a shotgun from off screen. Again, this is a testament to the dedication, ingenuity, and stupidity of teenage filmmaking. It didn’t stop there. One scene has a vampire chasing the hero down a flight of stairs with a working chainsaw. I’m astounded this didn’t turn into an accidental snuff film.
This was director Leif Jonker’s only film, which is a down right shame. DARKNESS cannot be considered high art, but compared to what a bunch of teenagers normally come up with on a $5,000 budget, it is pretty remarkable. Jonker has a good eye for dramatic staging. The shot of Liven rising from the earth at sunset is intercut with the chilling stare of a lifeless girl’s unblinking eye. It’s surprisingly effective. Jonker gives nods to his cinematic influences. Bits of sound design and camera work have a Sam Raimi feel, some locations echo Argento, the minimalist score (when not pelting out death metal) sounds a bit like Luci’s ZOMBIE. Alas, it took all his efforts just to get DARKNESS out to the world, and his proposed sequel, VAMPIRE FEROX (!), never materialized. The cast grew up into regular non acting people, though judging from the DVD special features, everyone seems to have very fond memories of running around town at night, covered in blood and shooting guns (hopefully with blanks). I’m glad to have this one, at least, but I’ll always be curious to know if Jonker could have topped himself.
Worse yet, it means that Liven is still out there somewhere. I can only hope there will group of angsty, reckless teens around to take him on.